The River Sanzu
Chapter 13
a Ronin Warriors / Dark is Rising fusion
by Liondragon
1895 wc ~ PG13 ~ W+B, K/T

There's plenty of material on Osore-zan all over the Internet. Less on the Sanzu-no-kawa itself.
It's the point of no return!

When it came time to teleport, Bran opted to go with Anubis. Will watched with wry amusement as the others tried to dissuade him without directly criticizing. Bran was quite happy to shock, and apparently quite curious about the similarities between the armors of sky and darkness.

Anubis. An appropriate name for a warlord; Will was wary of him, it was true, but the fact that his true name was freely given was something. Either way Will held an ace over him. If something happened to Bran, he could summon Anubis – Kujuurou – back.

Touma clumsily tipped a bow to the former warlord, offering a leather jacket. He was trying so hard to echo everyone’s caution despite the great relief and affection which radiated from his every move. The protections of their strange soul-bond could not be discounted. Will hoped Touma was not the traitor.

He sighed. Perhaps Bran was right. Perhaps it was a futile game to suspect their closest allies, who had shown nothing but goodwill. And the shakujo was not reacting. It would not long tolerate one allied with the Dark. Will wished he could describe the sheer force and grace of this Thing of Power. He looked with wonder at Nasuti, casually holding it as she talked to Shin. He himself did not feel worthy to touch it, much less wield it.

"Ready?" said Ryo beside him. Will nodded; he had the stone. There was a rush of light and fire, like a volcanic eruption charging toward him...

...and Will blinked, for they were inside an actual caldera. It was a desolate, grey place, like a bowl of sand with a gem-like lake collected at its lowest point. Here and there craggy rocks emitted columns of steam. Around the fringes, the flora had not yet recovered from winter, and lay bare.

Not far off, Bran shook his white head. Kujuurou glanced at him, silently inquiring if he was all right after the teleport. If there were words in his head for an answer, they were chased out by the view before him.

"Smoke and brimstone!" Bran said, wrinkling his nose at the heavy stench of sulfur. "It’s like stepping into hell itself."

"It is," said Kujuurou simply. The ronin glanced up at his voice. Everyone was quiet. Terrified, Bran realized. Another tale he and Will didn’t understand.

Ryo quickly sent his team to investigate the periphery. Their armors flashed up and down the caldera and around the lake. Oddly there was no one about on this holiday; the tourist accommodations sat empty in the bleak skyline. Even the temples were closed for the night.

Other than that, the land slept with quiet anticipation. Among the rocks were statues wrapped in colorful cloth, with flowers and food and clothing strewn at their feet. The land was dotted with miniature cairns, also laden with offerings. Most disturbing to Bran were the toys. Stuffed animals, action figures, baby rattles. Bright pinwheels spun in the gentle wind. He started to pace.

"Those are Jizo," said Will. He pointed at the stone statues. Ravens took off at his sudden movement. "They are the afterlife’s guardians, especially of little children. Gods of mercy. The clothing’s to help them along their journey. And those piles are for the children who gather on the far shore. They can’t swim so they try to build a bridge of pebbles to get across. And then the oni, the demons come every night and smash their piles. The Jizo drive the demons away." He rubbed his arm.

"Like... unbaptized children?" Bran said with a tinge of horror.

"Something like that." Will was eyeing the empty shop stalls unhappily. He had brought nothing with him to offer. His eldest, lost brother whom he had never known... Tom. Without him, Will would not have been a seventh son of a seventh son.

"Maybe we’re to wait till sunset. Finish off these demons," Bran said, trying to sound confident.

"Not if the Oni is already gone," said Kujuurou. Instead of grimness, there was an odd wistful note in his voice. He was looking at the bridge arcing over the eerie lake, made flimsy by the distance and draped in white wisps of cloth. Standing beside a tall cairn not far off, Nasuti perked at the comment, but said nothing.

"Have you been here before, Sasaki-san?" Bran asked, to fill the silence. He had grown used to either Touma or Will translating.

Kujuurou shook his dark head, searching the horizon. "No. We did not venture far from our villages except for trade or war. Every child in Japan, even in my time, knows the story of Osore zan. Over there is the Lake of Heaven. Years ago they built that bridge to represent the one over the River Sanzu."

Ryo and Nasuti came up, the staff’s rings barely making a sound. The other ronin were returning too. From the looks on their faces, they hadn’t found anything useful. Will sighed. The darkening sky told him nothing. "Think this is a dead end?"

"It’s the most likely place," said Nasuti. "Many people come here to communicate with the spirit world. There are many blind shamans who specialize in doing that. I suppose I’ll be the itako this time." She glanced at the staff dubiously.

"You do good, Nasuti," said Ryo, smiling. "You okay, Bran-san?"

"I just." Bran stopped, suddenly feeling uncertain. "I want a sword. Everyone else has something."

"Sure," said Ryo. "You can have mine."

Bran gaped at him. "I...there’s no need..."

"Maa, maa. Take it. I can fight with one. I’ve sparred with Seiji." Ryo held the sword out, parallel between them. Carefully Bran stretched his arms to take the sword of fire, as though opening to an embrace. Will let out a sigh.

"So well-balanced," said Bran, flipping it upright to peer at its length. His dark glasses glinted.

"Defend only," cautioned Ryo. "This is an old volcano, so it is stronger."

Quite suddenly Seiji’s voice broke out of the privacy of mind-to-mind. "Why didn’t you just tell us?" He was speaking to Touma, who had a hard look on his face.

"Seiji," said Ryo with censure. For a moment Bran thought the secret had been spilled telepathically. Kujuurou looked up sharply, but did not move.

"Tell what?" Shin donned his light-blue sub-armor, a subtle show of power. "That he knew about the youjakai gates?"

But Seiji paid him no heed. His frustration now bordered on anguish. "Touma. Touma, you could have just told us."

The petulant anger in Touma’s eyes fell away. "Not you, Seiji. Not you."

There was a short, terrible silence, except for the scavenging ravens.

Seiji’s expression shifted from confusion to apprehension to denial, so well he did he know his friend. "No. No! Him?" He swung around to point at Kujuurou. When he stopped, Korin Ken was in his hand, all six feet of mystical blade aimed at the warlord. There were answering flashes as the others called their full armor.

Kujuurou already had his sword in hand. Unlike the others he was still in his leather jacket and jeans. His too was like a cavalry sword, gleaming only because it collected the contrasting darkness. The flat of the blade faced Seiji’s unwavering challenge.

Though he was not defending himself, Kujuurou’s voice rang with contempt. "And why not ‘him’, Korin no Seiji? You raise your weapon like a wooden sword when there are things in these mountains that a samurai blade may not cut. Try to kill me, Korin. It will be no different. With their blades your venerated ancestors drove us into the snow-mountains, but we are still here."

Bran shuddered. Here was the warlord they feared... or had feared. He remembered they had been little more than boys when they had been first thrown into battle.

"Seiji, he is right. We need him." Ryo flipped his remaining katana casually, as though ready to engage the blond. Seiji glanced at him, and lowered his sword. Touma looked from one to the other, expression painfully blank.

Shuu broke the tension. "Ne, Shin, daijobou?" His friend was leaning on his spear, head hunched.

"I hear them," Shin murmured. "The children. They’re crying." Shuu helped him upright. That seemed to shock everyone back on track. Will tugged his jacket closer, shivering.

"It is an ill wind," said Kujuurou. "None of you may sense it. It will gather strength at twilight."

"Will-san, do you...?" Ryo asked.

"I don’t sense anything," he said. Something of what Kujuurou said tickled his memory, but he couldn’t place the thought. Try as he might he couldn’t hear what had upset Shin. The stillness had everyone whispering, as though the mountains were covered in white noise.

"Maybe we should try the River of Blood," said Nasuti. The professor frowned at the motionless staff.

Bran blinked. "Not literally?"

Touma shrugged. "This place has everything you’d find in the afterlife. Winter runoff picks up minerals and makes the stream blood-red. It’s over there."

"Sounds promising," said Will.

Seiji said flatly, "Anubis can go first."

Touma’s voice snapped through the still air. "His name is Kujuurou!"

"Hush, Touma-chan. Let him call me what he wants." With that Kujuurou went ahead, leaving stunned silence in his wake. It was the first show of familiarity between them. Given the way Touma usually acted, Bran reckoned it would take some time to sink in.

Suddenly the air filled with beating wings as the ravens took off. With them went all the small sounds. It was as though the world were holding its breath. Will shivered. Nasuti held up the shakujo, which was beginning to ring. "Everyone quiet."

Will’s held his breath. Nothing, he could sense nothing...

"What do we do now?" said Shuu, tapping the ground with his staff.

"I think," said Nasuti, "circling around the caldera?"

Touma looked to Ryo, and nodded. "Okay. Bran-san, Will-san, where will you stand?"

Will answered. "Right here, I guess. It’s so foggy, I can’t get my bearings."

Bran’s voice rose sharp and clear into the stillness. "Will, there’s no fog."


"It’s a clear sky– Will!" Bran tore off his glasses. "Will! Where are you? Where did you go?"

Kujuurou swore emphatically. "Dark spell. It’s clouding his mind!"

For a sinking instant Will thought he meant Bran.

Then with terrible dawning certainty, Will realized that Kujuurou meant himself.

"Form up!" cried Ryo, somewhere ahead of him. There was a clatter of metal – feet scrambling, weapons drawn.

"Stay with him, Bran!" shouted Touma. The air hissed with his arrows. "Kujuurou says he’s still there."

Will shook his head frantically, trying to clear the fog. Old Speech he tried, and spells, and songs of enchantment that few Old Ones knew. To no avail. The fog thickened, white as ash. Ahead he could only make out flashes of color as the others fought who-knew-what.

He had never felt so uncontrolled in his powers since he was eleven years old. He dared not reach out to the others’ minds. A wrong turning could send them into permanent madness.

Out of the riot of colors, a golden glow cut through the gloom. With it came a song which rang like bells, like rain, like a melody he had heard before. Will glimpsed the spinning rings of the shakujo just before the fog fell away like a curtain.

"Will, d’you see me?" Bran called. "I’m right here."

But Will could not speak, only cry out. For the scene revealed before him was a sky painted a malevolent yellow-green, heavy with a storm not built of rain and lightning. It was made of a million hungry spirits riding the seething crest of the flooding Sanzu River.

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